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National Strike in Israel Intensifies - 2003-05-15

A national strike by Israeli public sector unions has intensified, hitting banks, the stock exchange, and the country's international airport. The strike is in protest of massive cuts planned in this year's government budget.

All flights from Israel's Ben Gurion international airport were suspended, due to the public sector strike. Planes continue to be allowed to land, but luggage retrieval and other services are delayed.

The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and banks across the country also closed.

Fears mounted over the lack of sanitation, as uncollected garbage continues to pile up in cities across the country.

In addition, hospitals are only open to emergencies and the country's main telephone, electricity, and water companies are refusing to do any repairs.

The labor unrest began more than a month ago, gaining momentum Tuesday with the start of a general strike.

Israel's labor federation, the Histadrut, is demanding concessions on the government's plan to slash nearly $2.5 billion from the national budget. The plan would result in the dismissal of thousands of government employees, including teachers.

Also in dispute are proposed government reforms of debt-ridden national pension funds. Israeli treasury officials insist the changes are necessary to prevent the funds from going bankrupt.

Israel's Finance Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is talking with Histadrut leader Amir Peretz in a bid to reach a compromise and end the strike.

Mr. Netanyahu is threatening to bring the pension reform plan before the parliament for ratification as early as next week, with or without the approval of the trade unions.